Volunteerism: A Way of Life and a Career

Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fire department in 1736 in Philadelphia. President Richard Nixon created the first National Volunteer Week in 1974. Congress in 2009 designated September 11 as a National Day of Service. Volunteering has always been an important part of the American fabric. In fact, April is National Volunteer Month.

Many volunteer without realizing it -- the soccer coaches, den mothers, condo association board members, and church elders -- while others formally join organizations that couldn't carry out their mission without recruiting and training a group of dedicated Americans -- the U.S. military, Peace Corps, and the thousands of nonprofit organizations across the country like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, where I work as a volunteer services manager.

I can attest to the importance and value of volunteerism. Being on the front lines as a volunteer, supporting and overseeing others making a difference, and communicating the excitement of making an incredible impact to future volunteers has been essential in my career path.

I am lucky to support the people who want to give back to New York through volunteering at the 9/11 Memorial. I work with nearly 200 volunteers who felt they couldn't do enough right after 9/11; who were turned away for not having the specialized life-saving and emergency skills needed at the time; who want to be close to those they lost; and who aim to support a place of loss and hope that truly reflects the global nature of the Memorial.

The Memorial's volunteers support thousands of visitors per day. Since opening on 9/11, the Memorial has had more than 2 million visitors. We are open 7 days a week, 365 days a year and could not operate as smoothly as we do without the generous help of our volunteers -- but we could always use many more.

The passion of the volunteers and the generous citizens who try to make a small contribution towards the huge efforts of the Memorial reinforces my own passion for this career. My path began with Volunteers In Service To America, or VISTA, where I volunteered as a community organizer and formed a craft cooperative for low-income artisans who wanted to supplement income with a hobby. After VISTA, I furthered my volunteer commitment and joined the Peace Corps, where I worked as a marketing and product design advisor for another artisan's co-op in Gambia, West Africa. By pairing a passion for volunteering with my art background, I had a good answer to my parents' question of, "Whatever are you going to do with an art degree?"

I was also able to leverage my relationship with the Peace Corps to earn a master's in international and community development and I continued to be involved as an employee in the Corps' regional recruitment office at 6 World Trade Center. There are hundreds of stories like mine who survived that day. Being delayed five minutes because I wanted to change my tie possibly spared my life. I never made it into the office that day, but knew that my life, and life in America, would never be the same. Amidst all the sadness and destruction, every New Yorker turned to the one thing that they could easily do. They volunteered. Everyone came together to support first responders and each other as we tried to make sense of this horrific act against innocent Americans.

I continued to work in service after 9/11. But a career in the volunteer field wasn't always easy. Because of the economic downturn, I thought I would have to find a new path until I had an opportunity to work for the 9/11 Memorial.

This was yet another calling of a career in volunteerism. What were the chances of me returning 10 years later to the World Trade Center site to work with an organization with a mission to remember and honor the 2,983 people who died on 9/11 and the WTC bombing of 1993? And what were the chances for me to have an opportunity to create a volunteer program from scratch for what has become one of the most visited and revered memorials in the world?

In honor of National Volunteer Week, I commend our volunteers, and ask: Do you volunteer? Does it give you such satisfaction that you wish you could take it to the next level? Have you ever considered a career in the field of volunteer management?

It is possible. You can do it. I did.